Meet racer's wife who prefers Belfast to millionaires' paradise Monaco
As the racing season begins, Pippa Laverty tells Lorraine Wylie about life in the playboys' playground, partying with royalty, her friendship with the other riders' wives and why she objects to the banning of grid girls at the tracks
Known as the playground of the rich and famous, Monaco is a magnet for millionaires. Between party yachts, night clubs and the famous Monte Carlo casino, the tiny principality is geared to life in the fast lane - and they don't come much faster than motorcycle ace Eugene Laverty.
With the first round of the 2019 World Superbike Championship being held today and tomorrow, the Northern Irish rider and his wife, Pippa, are at the Phillip's Island racetrack in Australia.
Despite a busy schedule, Pippa kindly finds time for a chat, sharing her thoughts on life in the racing community, her home in a millionaires' paradise, raising kids in Toomebridge and why, in an industry surrounded by glitz and glam, she's not afraid of the competition.
Eugene and Pippa are part of the racing community, but are they part of Monaco's jet-set?
"When you think of Monaco, most people imagine the Monte-Carlo area with the casino and the Hotel de Paris," she says, "but that's really the touristy area and, although I really love going to experience the glamour of the hotel and doing a bit of people-watching, it's not somewhere we'd usually go. It's more of a birthday destination, or somewhere for a special girls' night out.
"We live in an apartment... well, everyone here lives in an apartment. It's in a quieter, more residential area called Fontvieille, where we have big supermarkets like Carrefour. We don't need to go anywhere else."
The Fontvieille area, created in 1960 by Prince Rainier III, aka 'the builder prince', is one of the principality's youngest suburbs. It isn't the most expensive area in Monaco, but with a 65sqm, one-bedroom apartment costing as much as €3,200,000, it's not the cheapest place in the world.
The couple also have a house in Toomebridge, and I asked Pippa which she prefers. "Well, actually, Northern Ireland is home to us," she says. "Back there, we have a beautiful house with a garden and loads of space. Here in the apartment, there's not a lot of room, but you just get used to it.
"In this area, it's a very tight-knit community with a huge sense of camaraderie. When we moved here, it was like moving into an instant friendship where everyone has the same thing in common.
"I don't think there's anywhere else in the world with such a condensed amount of people all doing the same thing.
"As soon as someone new arrives, we all gather round, inviting them to dinner to give them a chance to get to know people.
"When I lived in Northern Ireland, my week was different to my friends' free time. For them, the weekend was Friday, Saturday and Sunday, whereas my best days were Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
"Here, we all understand there is no real structure to the week."
Apart from the more obvious attractions, what does she like best about Monaco?
"I think one of the things we both like best is the weather. Eugene likes to train outdoors, so it's a bit chilly in Toomebridge for him - he's a bit of a sun-chaser. Having said that, Belfast is still top of my three favourite cities."
What does she love about Belfast?
"The people are lovely, very welcoming," she says without hesitation. "Where else can you find everything within walking distance? I mean, Belfast has everything you could ever want. The restaurants are the best - I've never had a bad meal in one. Then there's the Cathedral area and, of course, the shops.
"I chose to celebrate my 30th birthday in Belfast. We hired a place and held a Gatsby-themed party. I invited my friends from all around the world, so I could show them why I love Northern Ireland so much.
Surely, when it comes to fashion, Monaco has all the big brands on her doorstep?
"No, honestly, here you have two choices: Prada or Zara - that's it," she says. "Yes, of course, millionaires do come here to buy exclusive clothes, but when you live here, all you really want is an H&M or Topshop ... all those great places you get in Belfast. Here, we all shop at Zara, and when we're going out we'll ring friends to ask what they're wearing because chances are we'll end up dressed the same."
What does she do in Monaco?
"I do a whole mix of different things, including a little PR for Eugene, but mostly it depends on what's happening with him.
"For example, if we're just back from a race, all I want to do is lie on the sofa and watch Netflix.
"On the other hand, if we're going away for the season, my time is filled with getting things in order.
"It's also very important to me that I catch up with all my other friends who have similar lifestyles to mine. Their partners are sometimes racers or into cycling, so they too are travelling a lot of the time. It's always nice to meet up and exchange news."
I ask whether Northern Ireland woman Sonia Irvine, a long-time Monaco resident and sister to ex-racer Eddie, is among Pippa's circle of friends.
"Oh yes, Sonia is a friend of mine. I admire her so much. She's a real go-getter and doesn't let anything stand in her way."
Once described as a "party queen", Sonia, originally from Conlig in County Down, is responsible for the Amber Lounge, an exclusive nightclub experience.
Originally intended as a place where Formula One drivers could let their hair down, the event is now the highlight of the jet set calendar, with Monaco's royalty and celebrities among the guests.
Have Pippa and Eugene received an invite? "Yes, we did indeed and it was fantastic. I'm not just saying it because Sonia is a friend. Really, it was the best party experience of my life - we loved it.
"I have to hand it to Sonia; I don't know how she comes up with so many creative ideas. Between jetting around the world and keeping up with her family, she's always doing something.
"When I do manage to catch up with Sonia, I count it a privilege."
Does she also manage to meet with Tatia Rea?
"Tatia is lovely. We plan on catching up for a girls' luncheon on Phillip's Island. Some of the days we'll be at the track, but I think on Wednesday we're going to get together.
"All the boys have been told that on our girls' day they'll be staying home looking after the kids or whatever else needs done.
"We'll be going out to get our nails done, then we'll have something nice to eat and drink a few glasses of champagne."
I joke that perhaps the outcome of the race, in which Eugene will pit his skills against reigning champion Jonathan Rea, might dictate who pays the bill.
"Yeah," Pippa agrees with a good-natured chuckle. "It could be a case of 'this one's on you, Tatia'. Seriously though, the boys might have their bit of rivalry. At the end of the day, it's only human nature and I think it's all part of the entertainment.
"But us girls stick together. Behind closed doors, we give each other a pat on the back and say congratulations.
"You never know what will happen. One minute you could be in the spotlight for winning, and the next you could be lying in a hospital bed, needing to know everyone has your back. In the good times or bad, we all want that network of support."
Pippa knows all about the hazards of racing. Almost five years ago, when Eugene suffered a serious crash, two days before their wedding, her stress levels went through the roof.
Does it get easier with time?
"No, not really, but you learn not to dwell on the negatives. You learn to focus on the positive, the silver lining. When Eugene had that first accident, I was just grateful that he was okay. It can be a lot of pressure. Some couples can't handle it and they end up splitting.
"Essentially, you have to remember that you're dealing with a sports person who will be selfish and who will put everything into their sport. You just have to get your head round that, but it can be a problem for some people.
"I mean, I've been with Eugene 14 years now. When I first dated him, I thought what he did was lovely and a real novelty. But then when he had his first accident, I realised the danger was very real.
"Eugene was very upfront about his career. He made it clear from the start that this was his profession, as well as his passion. I knew I could either join him and progress his career or not.
"If you're not supportive then... of course that was in the very early days and, who knows, if we had kids, things might change.
"But I know that, as long as Eugene is able to ride, he'll continue to do so. It's him and it's what drives him. I accept that and I support him."
As well as the danger aspect, Pippa and women like her have to support their partners through professional disappointment.
Just last year, when Shaun Muir's Milwaukee Aprilia team dropped Eugene, it was a stressful time for them both.
"It was hard and, admittedly, these past few years there have been more lows than highs. However, I think that's just part and parcel of being with someone who has a career like Eugene.
“The thing is, at the end of the day, he’s an entertainer. Yes, he’s a sportsperson but he’s also doing it to entertain people. It’s a career that puts him in the public eye,” says Pippa.
“At the minute, Johnny and Tatia Rea are having the time of their lives. It’s a really good time for them. But being under the spotlight 24/7 brings its own pressures.
“When Eugene was winning races, although fantastic, we still felt that additional pressure.
“The past few years when he hasn’t had the best results, there’s still stress but, without the constant glare of publicity, somehow it isn’t as bad. I think, it’s the nature of things, it’s fickle and before long, the spotlight moves on to someone else.
“I have been very lucky to have the support of all the girls in the paddock. We look after each other in bad times. But then we get to celebrate the good ones too!”
The racing world is a unique environment, a heady combination of excitement and glamour. But the recent decision to ban, Formula One’s ‘Grid Girls’ has proven controversial.
Pippa, originally from Co Durham, was once a member of the ‘Babe Squad’ and has her own take on the subject.
“The decision to ban F1 girls created a whole hoo-ha. I think its taking freedom away from women who want to work. I’m not into the whole PC thing. I’m just old school.
“Back when I was young, the ‘Babe Squad’ was just a bit of promotional work. I got to travel all over and it gave me space to think about what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.
“You know, when you’re at school there’s so much pressure to choose GCSEs then decide about A-levels. These decisions are major and come at a time when you’re too young to know what you want. I had a great education but I chose a practical job and studied hairdressing. I wanted to travel and get out there.
“It was through the PR work that I met Eugene. A lot of girls from back then did similar jobs in modelling or PR to help pay off university fees, etc. Today, many of them are running the hospitality in the paddocks. Looking back, it really was a lot of fun!”
The jet-set party lifestyle is great when you’re young. But in a superficial society where youth is equated with beauty, is there pressure to compete?
“The way to cope is to have confidence in yourself and surround yourself with people who feel the same. I could easily hang around with a group of women here in Monaco who are totally botoxed. They have the big lips, big boobs and go to the gym 10 times a day! Sadly when you get talking to them, you discover many of them are really unhappy, insecure women.
“My friends just want to lead a healthy, happy life. They go to the gym once a week or maybe once a fortnight. They’re married to racers, cyclists or world endurance champs so they also have to go to glamorous events but they don’t let it take over.
“They are strong, confident women and if you are confident, it’s a very attractive quality. People who are happy and enjoying life, naturally attract others.”
At the moment, Pippa and Eugene have no plans for a family but if and when they do become parents will they raise their children in Toomebridge or Monaco?
“I’ll have to think about that,” she laughs. “There’s advantages to being in Toomebridge. Apart from having Eugene’s family just down the road, we both love Northern Ireland. Then again, we could go to Durham and have my family to help out.”
I suggest that might cause a little granny rivalry!
“Oh I hadn’t thought of that! Maybe we’ll have to choose somewhere neutral and they can all come and visit us! In the end, everything will depend on Eugene and his career.”
Finally, as the interview draws to a close, I wish her luck for Australia and look forward to hearing who pays for the girls’ lunch!